Case Summary

ARUNA RAMACHANDRA SHANBAUG VS UNION OF INDIA

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO. 115 OF 2009

FACTS

Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug was working as a nurse in Mumbai in the King Edwards Memorial Hospital. On November 27, 1973, while she was changing her clothes in the hospital, she was assaulted by a sweeper named Sohanlal Bharatha Walmiki, who was also working in the same hospital. She was strangulated with a dog chain around her neck. This resulted in a cut off in the oxygen supply from her brain, which in turn led her to remain in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) for over 38 years (as of 2011). A journalist-activist Pinky Virani filed a writ petition under Article 32 before the Supreme Court of India. In the writ petition, she pleaded for the withdrawal of the medical support provided to Aruna to relieve her from the sufferings she was undergoing. 

QUESTIONS OF LAW

  1. Is withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining therapies to a person in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) permissible or ‘not unlawful’?
  2. Whether a person in a PVS can be withdrawn when there is a probability of that person being in the state till his/her death and at whose instance can it be done?

HELD

  • Withdrawal of life support by a doctor is considered as an omission, and it is not a favourable decision to end a life. It is also a criminal offence when it is implemented without the approval of law as it is a form of passive euthanasia.
  • The doctors who took care of Aruna day and night for 38 years were considered as the “next friend” of Aruna, and the court declined to accept Virani as the “next friend”. Hence, her petition was dismissed.
  • The decision of discontinuing the life support of a person in PVS or otherwise someone who is in a state of being incompetent to take a decision can be taken by parents, spouse or other close relatives or in their absence, a next friend. Even the doctors attending such a patient can take this decision. The decision taken must be bona fide in the best interest of the patient. 
  • In order to put the decision of withdrawing the life-sustaining therapies into effect, the approval of the High Court is mandatory. The High Court can approve withholding the life support to an incompetent person under Article 226 of the Constitution.

Submitted By: Shunmalar M

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